By the time you’ve read this sentence, the Garrett T3 turbocharger in the Renault 18 Turbo will have cleared the frog in its throat and will be thrusting the family saloon forward in a haze of Gauloise smoke.
In exchange for their early adoption of road-going turbocharged technology, Renault 18 Turbo drivers were forced to wait two to three seconds for the turbo lag to disappear, giving them time to light another cigarette, solve a crossword puzzle or wave goodbye to the 2.0-litre saloon in the rear-view mirror.
This was the 18 Turbo’s raison d’être: a 1,600cc car with the performance of a more expensive 2,000cc model. The Saab 99 Turbo may have beaten the Renault to market, but Regie was going after a different audience – drivers less enthusiastic about black polar neck sweaters and Bang & Olufsen hi-fi units.
It was, if you like, a turbocharged saloon for the common man, undercutting the 99 Turbo by a grand, and costing around £6,500 at launch in 1981. This was some £1,300 more than the previous flagship of the range: the GTS.
Crucially, the price pitched it head-to-head with the likes of the BMW 320, Lancia Beta 2000 and Saab 900 GLS – all of which were powered by a 2.0-litre engine. The Renault 18 Turbo offered similar levels of performance, but from a relatively lowly 1,565cc engine of Renault 16 TS heritage.
Unveiled at the Paris Motor Show in 1980, the Renault 18 Turbo goes down as the first mass-market turbocharged car and the first from a volume manufacturer, blazing a trail in Europe kick-started by the BMW 2002 Turbo and Saab 99 Turbo.
Three years before the unveiling of the 18 Turbo, Renault had revolutionised the world of Formula One with the launch of the first turbocharged F1 car. The RS01, seen here testing ahead of its debut at the 1977 British Grand Prix, was nicknamed the ‘Yellow Teapot’ by Ken Tyrrell, with the experimental car often failing in a cloud of white smoke.
The Renault 18 Turbo was a little less revolutionary, but a whole lot more reliable. It was also well-equipped, featuring a five-speed gearbox, power steering (a £250 option on the GTS), electric front windows, central ‘electro magnetic’ locking and an interior layout straight outta Fuego. Leather seats were an option.
Turbo-specific goodies included a boost gauge, ‘Turbo’ decals, a side running strip extending to the boot lid to create a spoiler and 14-inch alloy wheels. These rims were pure class, but contemporary road testers were less than impressed, labelling them ‘interesting’, ‘striking’ and ‘strange’.
One reviewer thought the rear spoiler was a ‘nasty’ thing. Ouch.
But the 18 Turbo’s real party trick was its Garrett T3 turbocharger. Plant your Tod’s Gommino driving shoes in the deep pile carpet, wait for the lag to say ‘adieu’, and the saloon would top 115mph, hitting 60mph in around 10 seconds.
“Instead of making a wasteful throaty roar, the exhaust gases drive a turbocharger that literally rams a fuel and air mixture into the cylinders,” explained Renault, before claiming that “not only does it sound as quiet as a 3-litre limousine, it feels like one too.”
Credit to Renault, then, for not pitching the 18 Turbo as a performance saloon – it knew the limitations of a four-door family car with its roots in the Renault 12, and a pushrod engine used throughout the 1970s. “Rush, with hush,” was the decidedly modest headline.
By May 1981, the Renault 18 Turbo was Britain’s best-selling and cheapest turbocharged car, with 1,000 a week rolling out of the Flins factory, which happens to be Renault’s oldest body assembly plant in France. Last year, Renault celebrated the 18 millionth car to emerge from Flins: a Renault Zoe.
The 18 Turbo’s reign as Renault’s cheapest turbocharged vehicle was short-lived, with the 5 Gordini Turbo (5 Alpine Turbo in France) arriving in 1981. The Fuego Turbo finally appeared in 1983, before the 11 Turbo joined the range in 1984.
By this time, the Renault 18 Turbo had been revised and refined to offer 125bhp and 120mph, with the original alloys replaced by a set of smart, if less individual, BBS rims. French production ended in 1986, although the R18 lived on in Latin America.
Today, there are thought to be just five Renault 18 Turbos on the road, with a further four listed as SORN. A sad state of affairs for one of the first turbocharged production cars, although we can take solace from the fact that the number has been consistent for the past decade.
Many 18 Turbos were lost in service in the 90s, victims of rust and general apathy towards French saloons. Sure, it put comfort and economy above all else and tyre-squealed like a hooligan as it catapulted to the next bend for some understeer and body roll, but it deserves to be remembered with some fondness.
Like the ‘Yellow Teapot’, we need to look at the Renault 18 Turbo more as a work in progress, rather than the finished article – a springboard to better things.
If not, let us remember one of the most evocative alloy wheels and spoiler combos of the 1980s. We can all drink (a cup of tea) to that.